TMA brings costume designer Vinilla Burnham to Toledo on Jan. 20Written by Jeff McGinnis | | email@example.com
During her “Monster Ball” tour, Lady Gaga would take to the stage wearing her now-famous “Living Dress” — an ever-shifting cacophony of fabrics controlled remotely using motors and cables. The spectacle never failed to garner an epic reaction from her audiences. In one fan video, you can hear the voice of a spectator almost enraptured with excitement at the sight. “It’s amazing! It’s f****** amazing!”
Those words were music to the ears of Vinilla Burnham — Vin for short — the designer who worked feverishly for six weeks to finish the garment. “You can’t get better feedback than that!” Burnham said in an interview with Toledo Free Press Star.
Burnham will share her experiences working on projects like the Gaga dress, the Batsuit used in Tim Burton’s “Batman Returns” and many, many more in a free presentation at 2 p.m. Jan. 20 in the Toledo Museum of Art Peristyle.
Titled “Touching the Stars: Costume Design from Covent Garden to Hollywood,” her talk will cover the wide variety of experiences the U.K. native has had in the entertainment industry.
“Covent Garden and Hollywood are poles apart, both as wonderful as each other,” Burnham said. “I was extremely fortunate to have such an enormous variety in my career, from ballet and opera to Monty Python, Jim Henson and the Muppets, Batman and Lady Gaga.
“I specialized in costume design which crossed over with creature effects, puppetry, animatronics and even CGI, so I will cover all these areas. It will be an overview with a lot of variety and even some inside information.”
If Burnham sounds enthusiastic about her visit, well, it comes naturally. Burnham is a naturally passionate individual, and sharing her experiences with others clearly brings her great joy.
“I love it. I love passing on my knowledge and I hope people are entertained as well as informed, and hopefully inspired.”
Burnham’s passion is informed by a lifetime within show business. Her parents were both actors, but the young Vin knew she never wanted to perform herself. Still, there was an inevitability to her involvement with theater. After a stint at art school, she got a job working with props at the Royal Opera House in London, before migrating to costumes for television and film.
Her parents’ experience as performers helps Burnham empathize with the actors she works with. “It is their character after all, so it is my job to work with them to find out what works best for their portrayal of the character. It is a curious and exciting process; whatever preconceived ideas I may have about how I think they should look changes completely on meeting them, and it is a voyage of discovery to find the perfect look.”
So when does Burnham know that they have hit upon the perfect design? She just … knows.
“It is usually the case that both the actor and myself know instantly when we have struck the right chord, and that we have got it right. It is never a case of my telling the actor what he/she is wearing, it is collaborative.
“Very rarely does an actor’s ego get in the way,” Burnham added. “Some feel more strongly than others and some want more input than others, but I have encountered one or two that were difficult, and they will remain nameless!”
Celebrity gossip columnists may be disappointed when Burnham refuses to surrender such juicy details, but for her it’s always about the work. Beyond her most famous pieces, Burnham expresses a great deal of joy for her designs on a 2006 production of “The Wind in the Willows” starring Matt Lucas and Bob Hoskins.
“I loved the book as a child, and it was colorful, animal characteristics, it was period and it was a comedy, all the ingredients I love. I was particularly pleased with Badger’s costume and I have brought it with me from England to show at my talks,” she said.
Burnham’s experience integrating her fanciful designs with physical and visual effects certainly gives her a leg up in an era where the process of creating fantastic sights on film is changing rapidly. She said she hasn’t found it hard to adapt, because “it is not about elaborate visual effects, it is about telling stories through characters.
“If effects are used for the sake of it, it will be meaningless, and audiences will not believe it. Having said that, I love to use visual effects,” she noted. “I am the first one to want to know of new technology and materials, but they must be used within a context of good ideas and good design, it must be totally relevant to the visual statement you are making or you are sunk.”
Burnham communicates such love and joy through her film work that it comes as a surprise to learn she’s taking a hiatus to launch a new project called “The Little Costume Shop Weddings.”
“I have been making quarter-scale ballet costumes for some while now for collectors, and it occurred to me one day, ‘Where do people put their wedding dresses after their weddings?’ Most people pack them away and never see them again, so I thought it would be a wonderfully romantic idea to offer people a quarter-scale replica of their wedding dress.”
But there will always be a fire within Burnham about her first love, one which she believes she will communicate to the Glass City on Jan. 20.
“I hope that Toledoans will find the talks interesting, informative and also entertaining,” she said. “I would like to tell them about some of the incredibly talented and creative people that inspired and educated me during my career that they perhaps would never otherwise come across, people whose work should live on. And how my English heritage amalgamated with your American heritage and resulted in some groundbreaking work, and bridged the gap across the ‘pond.’”
For information, visit toledomuseum.org.